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Farage eyeing UK politics return

By AFP - Dec 11,2023 - Last updated at Dec 11,2023

Delegates pose for a photo with former Leader of the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage (centre), at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, northern England, on October 2 (AFP photo)

LONDON — Anti-EU populist Nigel Farage’s star turn on a popular reality TV show is fuelling speculation the divisive figure may be plotting a sensational return to frontline British politics.

The 59-year-old Brexit figurehead has in recent weeks teased the idea of rejoining the struggling ruling Conservative Party, which he quit 30 years ago in protest over its stance on Europe.

He has also been airing his views to millions of viewers nightly from an Australian jungle on the latest series of “I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!”, all while embracing its gruesome challenges.

Right-wingers say the arch-Eurosceptic could help turn around the Tories’ fortunes before next year’s expected general election, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has so far failed to rule his return out.

Centrists and commentators suggest however it would be a death wish for the Conservatives, and that Farage is more likely to lead the right-wing fringe party Reform UK into the nationwide vote.

Since Farage helped persuade a majority of Britons to vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the Tory party has drifted away from former leader David Cameron’s “liberal conservatism”. lurching towards right-wing populism.

“His return to the Conservative fold after decades campaigning from outside the party would complete the takeover of the Tories by their radical right faction,” British politics expert Richard Hayton told AFP.

 

Red carpet 

 

Rumours that Farage was toying with rejoining the Tories — after leaving in 1992 when prime minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty on closer European integration — gathered steam in October when he stole the limelight at the Conservative conference.

The former member of the European parliament was feted by supporters and filmed dancing with an ex-minister at a conference party. It was his first time at the event since the late 1980s.

Farage — once dubbed “Mr Brexit” by former US president Donald Trump — told the Politics Home website he would be “very surprised if I were not Conservative leader by 2026”.

He added that he was serious but later said the comments were made “in jest”, leaving observers guessing.

Fellow Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said the party should “roll out the red carpet” if Farage wanted to rejoin.

The then-chairman and more centrist Greg Hands quickly responded by saying, “no, no, no”.

One right-winger said this week he would “love” to see Farage as interior minister, while Sunak appeared to leave the door open to a comeback by telling reporters: “Our party has always been a broad church.”

 

‘Hero’ 

 

Sunak is on track to lose heavily to the main opposition Labour Party in the election if opinion polls are to be believed.

A recent survey suggested 11 per cent support for Reform, the successor to Ukip and the Brexit Party, which would be enough to see the Tories lose key seats to Labour.

Those on the right think bringing Farage back into the fold will help the Tories regain voters from Reform. The opposite may also be true.

“Welcoming Farage back in would be a strategic error that will likely drive more centrist swing voters away from the Conservatives towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats,” said Hayton.

Some Westminster watchers suspect Farage is not really serious about rejoining a party he has enjoyed undermining for the past three decades.

“It’s a way of coming back into the public spotlight. A bit of an ego trip as well,” David Jeffery, British politics lecturer at the University of Liverpool, told AFP.

That publicity has been playing out on TV screens, where Farage reached the latter stages of “I’m a Celebrity.”

He debuted on the show last month by sticking his head through the window of a camper van full of snakes, and declaring: “I’m a hero to some people and an absolute villain to millions.

“In the jungle you’re going to find the real me. You might like me more, you might dislike me more, but you will at least find out.”

Political scientists note that the many Conservative MPs who harbour ambitions of leading the Tories are unlikely to welcome a likely future rival.

Jeffery suspects that when Farage leaves the jungle he is more likely to relead the populist Reform, which he founded in 2018.

“For Reform, having Farage back would be brilliant,” Jeffery said, despite the Brexiteer never being elected to the UK parliament in seven attempts.

 

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